FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Claire Lewis, David Auburn’s 2000 Pulitzer Award-winning Proof is pitched with absolute assurance. Given this is the Studio, there’s a surprisingly solid whiteboard homestead backyard set by Michael Folkard with a roof and door, set at an angle stage-left. It’s lovingly detailed. The porch is where it all happens, Dan Walker’s lighting marching seasons across this ramshackle pile. Ian Black deftly posts a tracery of sound, kept to a minimum.
David Auburn’s 2000 play Proof continues New Venture Theatre’s exciting exploration of contemporary American – and international – drama. NVT often hits its best stride here and drafting two native Americans into this four-hander doesn’t harm matters either.
This heartwarming production is directed by Claire Lewis, whose fine Butterworth Parlour Song from 2015 makes one hope she’ll return to him too. Proof is pitched with if anything even more assurance. Given this is the Studio, there’s a surprisingly solid whiteboard homestead backyard set by Michael Folkard with a roof and door, set at an angle stage-left. It’s lovingly detailed. The porch is where it all happens, Dan Walker’s lighting marching seasons across this ramshackle pile next to Chicago University. Ian Black deftly posts a tracery of sound, kept to a minimum.
There’s a couple of theatrical coups in the first act as Catherine’s given bad champagne for her twenty-fifth birthday by her father Robert whom she’s looked after single-handed throughout his mental illness. She’s resistant to his offer for them to do mathematics together, says she fears her own sanity. Crazy people don’t worry about their being nuts, Robert ripostes, though it’s a little disquieting he admits that she’s talking to him when he’s been dead a week. Marie Ellis exudes a hunched sassy ultimately loving confusion to Bill Griffiths’ warmly laconic Robert.
His one-time student Hal (a slightly goofy but fundamentally warm-hearted Robert Purchese) emerges having studied Robert’s gibberish notebooks, his attempts to flirt rather forestalled by Catherine’s suspicions that he’s stolen something. He has, but it was really to gift-wrap it back to her, not alien space maths entries but the one lucid year he spent four years back teaching again and writing about Catherine. Alas she’s called the police. The chemistry between Ellis and Purchese is warm, wrong-footed, awkward and wholly believable.
When Catherine’s fashion-conscious elder sister Claire arrives, full of New York arrogance she’s convinced this latest police farce proves her suspicions: Catherine needs psychiatric treatment and should move to New York and live near her. And she’s selling the house. Bridgett Ane Lawrence – last seen in NVT’s The Homecoming – makes the unsympathetic currency analyst Claire human, though not too much so. Her occasional unbending teeters over with the guilt and resentment she feels, abandoning Catherine to look after their father, who abandons her own studies at Northwestern to do so.
It’s the consummation between Catherine and Hal that takes this play to a symbolic key Catherine gives Hal next morning to open a drawer. He finds a fantastic proof on primes, Robert’s supreme lucid moment? It looks groundbreaking. We swiftly recall the parable of the eighteenth century woman mathematician Catherine reminds Hal of. Claire arrives just as Catherine announces no, she didn’t find it; she wrote it.
After another flashback with Robert and Catherine, the day he made his lucid entry, the second act spirals through disbelief on the others’ part. Catherine’s barely trained, she couldn’t possibly have written this proof, what proof can she possibly adduce? After a violent outburst from Catherine and sudden collapse, Claire gives Hal the notebook.
What happens next, who wrote the proof, how Catherine navigates her feelings of betrayal and what possible redemptions there can be, are interrupted by another scene where Robert in flashback out in thirty below feels on fire like he’s not been since he was twenty-one. He’s writing at speed. The proof? Catherine takes up a notebook at his behest to read aloud, and freezes.
The outfall in this exquisitely-paced production is both heartwarming and satisfying, compassed with a trembling fragility. Griffiths, younger than one might expect, exudes the gravelly distrait authority that Robert gently pushes towards Catherine. Again, Ellis is exposed to three fundamentally different relationships and shines in each, from tenderness to exasperation and fury to shuddering withdrawal.
Lawrence’s remote exasperated tones catch the fundamentally superficial, controlling and unsympathetic Claire. Purchese’s journey too though more muted facets a mildly geeky already-disappointed man, twenty-eight with no breakthrough, destined to second-rate teaching. Nevertheless Purchese throbs with impartial decency, even love. Lewis brings out the hushed velocity of this beautifully-constructed play. It’s as good as you could hope for and a gem worth catching.